It's a good thing "I Love Trouble" loves trouble, because trouble is just what it's in.
Although Julia Roberts and Nick Nolte beaming out at the world from "Trouble" posters everywhere point to a light and frothy concoction, that's not what filmmaking team Nancy Meyers and Charles Shyer (she produces, he directs, they both write) have delivered. On screens instead is a stab at the kind of thriller/romance combination that Alfred Hitchcock turned out in treats like "North by Northwest."
But, instead of the charm and the suspense complementing each other in the classic manner, they drag each other down. The film's jeopardy sequences are ineffectual and cast a pall over the romantic comedy aspects, which are not especially entrancing despite the star power. Instead of synergy, what "Trouble" achieves is more like disappointment squared.
No one expects movies like this one, set as it is in the largely mythological world of fiercely competitive daily newspapering, to be realistic. But neither should they be as flaccid and unconvincing as what we are presented with here.
After a pro forma opening setting up the thriller parts of the plot, Peter Brackett (Nolte) makes an appearance kissing a willing blonde in a fancy convertible. "Meet the Press" indeed. Although he still pulls down the big bucks as the city columnist for the Chicago Chronicle, Brackett is clearly more interested in promoting his new novel and chasing skirts than corralling a Pulitzer Prize.
What changes his mind is meeting Sabrina Peterson (Julia Roberts), the new face at the rival Chicago Globe. The two meet when both are assigned to cover the same train wreck, and Brackett feels all his instincts, competitive and otherwise, start to go into action. Peterson, however, is business personified and gives Brackett such a chilly brushoff it's surprising the movie doesn't end right there.
Instead, to no one's surprise but their own, these two find their lives increasingly intertwined. First they go toe to toe on the wreck story, snarling at each other and trading scoops on a story their papers inexplicably view as bigger than the sinking of the Titanic.
Then, when developments lead them to a more complicated and dangerous situation, Brackett suggests they pool their skills. "If you knew what I knew and I knew what you knew," he theorizes in a rare moment of logic, "maybe we could live through this story." Peterson grudgingly sees his point and a reluctant collaboration is on.
There are clever moments in "I Love Trouble," odd times when the concept that amused Meyers and Shyer, a pair of rascals trying to both cooperate and out-con each other, is fleetingly visible. But mostly what we see is an unconvincing attempt at entertainment that is not good enough any way you look at it.
Just one glance at the gripping opening elevator scene in "Speed," for instance, illustrates how ineffectual a similar situation in "Trouble" is. Neither Meyers nor Shyer has any previous experience turning out jeopardy material, and this is not an area where on-the-job training is successful.
What this team has been good at, most notably in the perennially underappreciated "Irreconcilable Differences" as well as their successful "Father of the Bride" remake, is writing glib, amusing dialogue. Here, however, perhaps because they were sidetracked coping with the thriller aspects, the repartee is mostly lackluster, something that not even the inordinate number of editors involved in the project can remedy.
And, for the second time in two movies, Roberts finds herself thoughtlessly misused. An actress with an unbeatable smile who can effortlessly project warmth and good cheer, she spends far too much of this movie, as she did in "The Pelican Brief," looking somber and glum when she isn't being the focus of sporadic and insipid ogling. Unless everyone concerned wakes up and remembers what her celebrity is based on, Roberts' career could end up in considerable trouble itself.
* MPAA rating: PG. Times guidelines: several lascivious shots of Roberts' physique and some verbal sexual innuendo. 'I Love Trouble'
Julia Roberts: Sabrina Peterson
Nick Nolte: Peter Brackett
Saul Rubinek: Sam Smotherman
Robert Loggia: Matt Greenfield
James Rebhorn: The Thin Man
A Touchstone Pictures presentation in association with Caravan Pictures. Director Charles Shyer. Producer Nancy Meyers. Screenplay by Nancy Meyers & Charles Shyer. Cinematographer John Lindley. Editors Paul Hirsch, Walter Murch, Adam Bernardi. Costumes Susan Becker. Music David Newman. Production design Dean Tavoularis. Art director Alex Tavoularis. Set decorator Gary Fettis. Set designers Sean Haworth, James J. Murakami, Nick Novarro, William O'Brien, Nancy Tobias. Running time: 2 hours, 3 minutes.
* In general release throughout Southern California.